It’s fascinating to see what literature gets recommended on popular book blogs these days: new creative non-fiction, pop-lit sensations, memoir, fantasy series, and Pulitzer winners included. These kinds of resources are wonderful for me because they keep me up-to-date on all the contemporary fiction I miss when my mind is (happily) lodged somewhere in the English Renaissance. But as someone whose job requires that she keep most of her reading life between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, I suppose I’m a little surprised that (very) old books rarely end up on these reading lists. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything recommended that has an imprint earlier than Jane Austen.
I understand why this is. There are so many important books published each year, and looking backwards to old, dusty books written before the nineteenth-century seems silly when we consider the massive book-output confronting us. There will always be something new to read. We even tend to think of these old works (like those of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, the Beowulf poet, Homer, Virgil, Dante, and company) as history texts, books that are meant to give us insight into another time period but not necessarily to entertain us. We may even feel wary of venerating them too much; after all, where are all the women writers? Would we be more interested in these books if, as Virginia Woolf speculates in A Room of One’s Own, Shakespeare had an equally talented sister? The problem of women writers aside, this general distaste is too bad, since the main object of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (as told by the Host in the General Prologue) is to “delight and instruct.”
I believe it’s possible to deeply enjoy (not just “appreciate”) the classics that come before Jane Austen—and “before Austen” seems to be where that invisible line exists. I promise I’m not just touting this claim as an English teacher. I am convinced that literature—all great literature, from any time period—can compel us to live richly and teach us what it means to be human. This compulsion is what keeps authors like Chaucer and Shakespeare in our canon, but our distance from them makes us modern readers skeptical of whether or not those texts are worthwhile for us to read. In the film Liberal Arts, for example, the protagonist Jesse’s reply to 19-year-old Zibby’s confession that she hated Chaucer is that “you’re not supposed to like him.” I think lots of people share Jesse’s sentiment, but I would argue that a huge shift takes place in your reading life when you move beyond appreciating the classics (a pretty ambivalent posture, I’d say) to actually enjoying them.
There are a few tricks that make very old books more manageable, especially if you’re not used to reading texts written earlier than the Victorian era (think Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Hardy, or Eliot). Since I’ve been getting ready to teach a British literature survey course in the fall, I keep returning to the idea that I cannot just advocate “why” we read great literature; I have to first articulate “how” we go about reading it, something I absolutely take for granted. (I wanted to get these ideas down in writing, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I do a little teacher-brainstorming in this longer post.)
If you already read very old books for fun, good for you, comrade; you are in good company. But if you don’t, maybe these ideas will be helpful to you.
Before you even consider picking up a very old book for fun, ask yourself: What is my real reason for reading this book? Reading something like The Canterbury Tales just “so you can say you did it” will not sustain you through the reading process. This is why I’m skeptical of reading plans that claim they will help you tackle all the books of the Bible or all the plays of Shakespeare in a year. That kind of approach strikes me more as arbitrary consumption, not a healthy reading life. Instead of strict reading schedules, you will be better off with a meaningful query that you stick to while reading your book of choice: i.e., Why does every single college English professor assign this book? What can this old book, written in a completely different world from my own, say to me today? Someone I deeply respect recommended this book—why would they suggest it? What can this book teach me about what it means to live to good life?
Remember that although books are books, they are cultural objects, too. Books reflect the cultures that produced them, and it’s vital to remember that the text you are enjoying was not written in a vacuum. This means that the value systems and social norms of the time period are usually inscribed upon the text. You can’t read Austen, for example, without acknowledging the social milieu of courtship in the Regency period. The same goes for Beowulf—what makes someone a hero in the Anglo-Saxon world, a culture persistently at the mercy of barbaric invasion? It doesn’t take much to bring yourself up to speed on the historical context. To wit, a little googling or a peek into the book’s introductory matter can make a huge difference. The idea here is to remember that you don’t have to read a book blindly—it’s OK to do a little homework first.
Don’t just “pick something.” When you take a college literature course, you have the great benefit of using the syllabus to hand pick all the fabulous imaginative literature you can read. But when you’re beyond the age of getting syllabi each semester, you need to step out and find suggestions elsewhere. People too easily forget the invaluable resource we have in public librarians. If librarians don’t have a recommendation for a very old book on the tip of their own tongues, then they know someone who does. They can also help you tremendously if you ask a specific question that gives them something to go off of, like, “I’ve always wanted to read a Greek epic—where should I start?” or “The myths surrounding King Arthur and Camelot are really interesting to me—what’s the best book to begin with for someone who rarely reads medieval literature?” Do not say: “I want to read an old book. Any ideas?” They will probably be gracious anyway, but you won’t come out of the experience with a satisfying book choice. (Obviously, there is always the Internet if you’re looking for a good recommendation. But I guarantee you’ll have more fun meeting your local librarian.)
One more thought on this one: if you live nearby a university library, don’t be afraid to seek out the help of “subject librarians.” Librarians are advocates of the education of the world, and they will be delighted to have you come in off the street and say, “I don’t go here, but I’m looking for an expert opinion on _____ kind of literature. Could I chat briefly with the literature subject librarian for some suggestions?” Because you aren’t a student, you probably won’t be able to check out a book from that library, but you will be able to get it from your local branch. Never underestimate the reality that anyone in the US can read any book they want if they just make use of their library.
Good editions make all the difference. You can never go wrong with Penguin, Oxford, Cambridge, or Norton. And reading is always a better experience if you have clean type-face, sturdy paper, flexible binding, good notes, and a thorough introduction written by a scholar in the field. Extra points if the edition includes the original frontispiece of the book (i.e. It’s comforting to see that First Folio page in an edition of Shakespeare). It may sound like I’m being a little too particular here, perhaps even a tad snobbish. “But what about the fun of finding an old Dover Thrift Macbeth on the side of the road?” you may ask. I hear you, and I love old paperback classics just as much as the next bibliophile, yet I would argue that they facilitate a different kind of reading experience—one that gets its momentum from the thrill of finding an “artifact” and not a text.
Novels are still a “new thing” in our universe. If you push your reading life further back in time, the literature you’re going to encounter is mostly poetry and drama. The “novel,” as we understand it today, is a reasonably modern convention. The most recognizable ones to us appear in the eighteenth-century, although there are certainly some earlier iterations (even as far back as the Renaissance) that look like novels but don’t contain the same formal conventions we’re used to (like chapters or a linear narrative). Once you can accept that you won’t find anything that has the same reading experience as Dickens in the sixteenth-century, you can begin to enjoy those works for what they are. You may also need to adjust your ideas of chapter-book reading to something that divides its time between play acts or poetry cantos—nearly all texts have moments of rest built into them, and, because you’re a human with a human’s attention span, you’ll naturally detect those breaks.
In the grand scheme of our literary history, private reading is still a new thing, too. I think this takes people by surprise. Because we live in a culture that begins advocating private reading as soon as we know our letters, we forget that reading used to be public, oral, sociable, and frequently reserved for the wealthy. In our century, this takes a little imaginative work: when you sit down to read Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, the text will begin to come alive for you if you imagine it coming to you like it would to the spectators in this medieval frontispiece (called the “Troilus Frontispiece” by scholars). Everyone is sitting around listening to a story-teller (notice there is no book) recount the love perils of Troilus and Criseyde—some are into it, others are not. If a text was meant to be performed aloud, then that fundamentally changes how we read it. (How much more fun is it, after all, to imagine Beowulf being read aloud in a raucous mead hall?)
Unless you have some experience with Middle English, go for editions with modern spelling. When you go looking for Malory or Chaucer in your library, open up the text first to see if it’s written in a prose (or sometimes verse) translation. “Middle English,” which is our linguistic bridge between Anglo-Saxon (Old English) and Modern English, will look familiar to you, but you’ll just experience a whirlwind of confusion if you jump into the Middle English right from the start. You’ve probably seen it before if you read The Canterbury Tales in high school: “Whan that aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of march hath perced to the roote.” Reading in the Middle English is something that people work up to, so don’t be afraid to read a translation first. Now, when you are ready for Middle English, I say go for it. Listen to recordings of people reading it in ME on YouTube, try to read it aloud yourself so you can get some sense of the meter, and get your hands on an edition (like The Riverside Chaucer) that glosses the vocabulary as you read.
Know the location of the nearest Oxford English Dictionary (or get acquainted with the OED online). When you read a very old book, your everyday dictionary won’t be enough. You need a dictionary that tells you not just what a word means today, but what that word meant in the time period of your chosen book. Words have baggage, and thoughtful reading means taking into account how that baggage changes the meaning of the text. (And looking up words in the OED is serious fun.)
Finally, don’t throw your hands up in frustration when you find you are lost. All readers of very old books, even those of us who do this for a living, have moments (probably more than we would admit) where a portion of a book just isn’t making sense to us. If something is wildly unclear to you, don’t lose yourself reading the same passage over and over. Push through. Look for help. Ask for a second opinion. If all else fails, remind yourself that you are not “cheating” if you use Spark Notes for its original purpose: a concise supplement to the text. This moment of frustration is more easily averted, too, if you are reading the book in community: with a friend, with a book club, or while auditing a college class. No author wants his or her readers to be lost—take comfort in the fact that the author really is on your side, even if he or she is rooting for you from centuries away.